The Future of Local Government

Luke Mackenzie

By Luke Mackenzie

The future of Local Government is perhaps one of the biggest issues that victory in 2015 will need to face. Recently Lord Heseltine published a report on how to create wealth, titled ‘No Stone Unturned’, he listed 89 recommendations. Recommendation 11, in my view is one of the most important and consequential of these: 

‘All two-tier English local authorities outside London should pursue a path towards unitary status. The Government should encourage this and work with authorities to clarify the process and enable it to happen.’ 

Our current model of Local Government is inefficient. Two-tier governance creates duplication and confusion. An area governed by a Non-Metropolitan Borough or District Council and a County Council will have two sets of Councillors, two sets of Council senior management, two Human Resources departments etc. Then there is responsibility; County Councils will maintain the roads and dispose of waste, while Borough and District will collect the waste. There are also areas where both tiers will have the same responsibilities, such a grass cutting on them land owned by the respective Council. This creates unnecessary confusion for the public on who is responsible for what. 

There is also the problem of economies of scale for some of the smaller Borough and District Councils. Once staff costs and overheads are added to costs of providing basic services such as rubbish collection, many of the smaller Council will have insufficient resources to implement other policies, such as regeneration or facilitating business growth. 

This creates a strong case for reform, the most logical of which is Unitary status for all English Local Authorities outside of London. Unitary authorities provide local services much effectively and at substantially lower cost. They offer a clearer picture of where responsibilities lie for delivery of local services. They prevent duplication and coordination issues that can arise between different local authority functions. They offer faster decision making and avoid the unnecessary administrative expense associated with running a two-tier system. 

Now, there are problems with this. Firstly and most obviously, there is the cost; Lord Heseltine points out in his report, that in 2009, Cornwall made the transition to a unitary council by reorganising seven councils into a single unit. The initial cost was £39.5 million, but the reorganisation is now delivering on-going efficiency savings of £15.5 million a year. The second obstacle to reform is politics; the restructuring will result in the need for far less Councillors. County Councillors will cease to exist. To reap the full benefits offered Unitary status, Non-Metropolitan Borough and District Councils will need to be merged to create much larger councils, I would say they need to cover a population size of at least 250,000. Merging Councils will require less Councillors. For the main three main political parties, Councillors represent a significant proportion for their activist base; fighting elections, fund raising and running the party on a local basis. Implementing a policy which will adversely impact on its own activist will difficult for any political party. Not only could it harm a Parties ability to fight elections, it may also cause divisions in Parliament, Councillors often have the ear of their MPs, whom may find themselves under significant pressure not to support such changes. I have the upmost respect for Councillors, having previously been one; I know the hard work and positive contribution they make to their communities and in no way is this article a criticism of them. 

Restructuring Local Government is this manor, will significantly reduce duplication and inefficacies while giving the new Local Authorities the financial strength to deliver brilliant local services and encourage economic growth. I believe that these changes are inevitable and whoever undertakes this task will have a tough job; it’s just a case of when.

Luke Mackenzie is a Director at Parliament Street

Follow Luke on Twitter @LMackenzie86

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